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Dare To Question

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
This speech, given before a Liberal League, probably in the late 1870's, is transcribed from one of Stanton's handwritten manuscripts, untitled and undated, in her Library of Congress papers. It gives a flavor of Stanton's stalwart support of the separation of church and state and her views on religion's harm to women and society. -- Dan Barker

Though we have passed beyond the Inquisition, the stake, the rack and the thumb screw, yet those who dare publicly question the popular theology, are as effectually persecuted to day, as ever. Though in different ways, from the coarse, brutal modes of the past, we have more refined methods of torturing the spirit rather than the flesh. Go into any community, and if there is a person or family who does not belong to some one of the leading sects, who expresses doubts as to the truth of any of the dogmas, traditions, and superstitions of the popular theology and you will invariably find such a person or family, ignored, ostracized, slandered, unless by great wealth, and genius they conquer by power, the positions denied them by right.

Hence Liberal Leagues are needed to make all forms of religion, all shades of thought equally respectable. We occasionally hear, even in our country at this late day, of physical inflictions for opinion's sake, as the recent case in Texas proves. It was stated in the leading Journals that a respectable physician who was supposed to entertain liberal theological opinions, was taken from his home, severely beaten, tarred and feathered: the assailants declaring that all infidels in that state should be similarly dressed and treated.

When Col. Robert Ingersoll lectured in the chief cities of New York last winter, the press, the pulpit at once put him in the pillory of abuse and denunciation. Bishop Doane of Albany wrote a protest against him as a dangerous man unfit to be heard! and tried to secure the signatures of all the leading clergy. None declined. The people crowded to hear him, were enchained with his eloquence and in spite of Bishop Doane's protest [Ingersoll] was invited there a second time. The clergy throughout the state attacked him fiercely, and treated him with as much arrogance as if the constitution of the United States had not said in its first amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech." The question naturally arises, shall the clergy in this land be permitted to do by clamor, what Congress is forbidden to do by law? It may be a small matter to denounce one man in every pulpit from Maine to Texas, but if the principle of free speech and free thought be questioned and religious persecution tolerated, we have rung the death knell of American liberties. We cannot watch with too jealous an eye the slightest aggression on individual rights by the church, remembering that the moral wrongs, oppressions and persecutions inflicted on humanity through the centuries have all been in the name of religion. . . .

The preference is invariably given to those who sustain the popular faith. With all his resources in himself, he [the freethinker] is often made to feel painfully conscious of his isolation from human sympathy. One of the most touching chapters in the Autobiography of Theodore Parker is that in which he describes his sense of loneliness. While conscious of his own unflinching integrity to principle, his lofty aspirations for all that is good, true in a noble mankind, his devotion to the best interests of humanity, he was traduced and shunned; almost to the end of his life, beyond human sympathy. Many who read his great thoughts now, would not have dared to listen to the living voice that first uttered them.

I recently met a young woman just ordained in the Universalist Church and installed over a congregation. She is as grand a type of womankind as I ever met. Well developed in body and mind, beautiful to look upon, a charming companion, and effective preacher, a woman whose influence in any community must be most desirable. In expressing for her the enthusiasm I felt to the wife of a clergyman, a very inferior type of womanhood, narrow, bigoted, morose, ah! she replied, "Miss K. is a very dangerous woman. She does not believe in the personality of the Devil, in hell and eternal punishment. She is a Universalist, and my one regret is that she is so ladylike, so charming, so unexceptional in thought, word and deed; for that only makes her the more dangerous." And thus everywhere we find character, influence, development, all made secondary to belief in unimportant dogmas. A mere speculative faith of what lies beyond our earthly horizon of which no mortal can possibly know anything, is made primal to all the great facts of existence which we do know, and for the right use of which we are responsible. When we sum up all that the generations have lost in development, and suffered through fear of the power of the Devil, and the torments of Hell, we feel that the Canons of Westminster have been far too slow in rolling back the huge iron gates of the bottomless pit, and letting the oppressed go free. Seeing that with all their learning they have been so lamentably tardy in lifting humanity out of such gloomy depths, it would be well for us now one and all to begin to do our own thinking, and not to blindly henceforward trust to the leadership of those no wiser than ourselves.

A new thought in morals and religion is as important as in art, science, discovery and invention, and instead of persecuting those who utter it, we should encourage the expression of individual opinion, resting in the faith that truth is more powerful than error and must conquer at last. In estimating the character of the noble men and women identified with the Liberal movement compared with their assailants, I am forcibly reminded of the morality and religion of the Fejee Islands. The United States Exploring Expedition in their reports of uncivilized nations compare the Samoans and Fejians. While the Samoans have no religion, no Gods, no rites, they are kind, good humored, desirous of pleasing and very hospitable. Both sexes show great regard and love for their children, and age is much respected. The men cannot bear to be called stingy, and disobliging. The women are remarkably domestic, and virtuous. Infanticide after birth is unknown.

Their cannibal neighbors the Fejians are indifferent to human life; they live in constant dread of each other: shedding blood is no crime but a glory, they kill the decrepit, maimed and sick, and treachery is an accomplishment. Infanticide covers one half the births and the first lesson taught the child is to strike its mother. A chief's wives, courtiers, and aides-de-camp are strangled at his death. Cannibalism is rampant. They sometimes roast their victims alive. When Gods have like characters, they live on the souls of those devoured by men and yet these Fejians look with horror at the Samoans, because they have no Gods, no rites, no religion. What better are we who measure men by their creeds rather than character? . . .

I am often asked what do those Liberals mean by a complete secularization of the government? surely we have no established church in this country. We have not in theory: but we have practically, so long as all church property is exempt from taxation, so long as the Protestant Bible is read in our schools, and the state enforces by law the observance of the Holy days of any one religion in preference to all others. If the Seventh-day Baptists and the Jews prefer to observe Saturday as holy time they should not be forbidden to work on Sunday and the masses compelled to toil six days should be protected in all rational amusements on the seventh. Yet in more of our towns and cities there is no provision whatever for the amusement and instruction of the masses.

We must guard with vigilance all approaches at union of church and state . . . Though we see its [theocracy's] crippling power in France, and Italy, the enemy of science, and liberal ideas in both politics and religion, yet we imagine we have no danger to apprehend from that quarter, forgetting that even in our republic the clergy are a privileged order, and all church property exempt from taxation.

. . . But mothers give their sons no lessons on these great questions because they are not yet awake to their importance themselves. And yet the position of woman is the great factor in civilization to day. During the discussion on Catholicism a few years ago in England Gladstone said in one of his pamphlets that most ready converts to this religion as might be expected are women, through them the men are made victims of priestcraft and superstition. A recent writer on Turkish civilization says the great block to all progress in that nation is the condition of the women, and their improvement is hopeless, because they are taught by their religion that their position is ordained of heaven. Thus has the religious nature of woman been played upon in all ages and under all forms of religion for her own complete subjugation, and our religion in the republic of America is no exception. See how many Liberal clergymen we have seen in the last two years brought before Synods and General Assemblies, tried and condemned for preaching the doctrine of woman's equality and admitting women to their pulpits. Our scriptures, and our religion as taught by the majority of our ordained leaders, assign woman the same subject position as under all other forms, and it is through the perversion of her religious element that she is held in that condition.

As the son always reaps the disadvantages suffered by the mother, we need not wonder that the man who dares to think, reason, investigate, and protest against the traditions, and superstitions of our popular religion is considered the marvel of this day and generation. How many men have we who dare to stand up in Congress, or the state legislature, and talk on the real interests of the people, to tell what he knows to be the absolute truth in any subject? We shall never have brave men until we first have free women. . . .

Let the rising generation of young men learn that justice, freedom and equality are principles of which it is safe to build alike the state, the church, and the home, and that it is impossible for them to ever realize a full, complete, noble mankind, until their mothers, wives and sisters are recognized as equal factors in the progress of civilization.

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